The strangeness of the suburbs. A few reviews for Langwell Sorrow

Langwell Sorrow Stephen Hargadon

Last year (how briskly the years fall away, yet each day takes an age) I was privileged to be published in the tenth anniversary issue of the excellent Black Static. I was in the company of three other writers who published their very first stories in that magazine: Carole Johnstone, Tim Lees, and Ray Cluley. (I still remember, and still cherish, the excitement of that first acceptance.)

My story, Langwell Sorrow, is set in Manchester. There are pubs, there are big screens. There are voices. There are football teams. There are memories and hopes. There are streets to which you should never return. I do not quite know how the story began, or why it needed to be written. These things happen. The words happen.

I’m pleased to say it gathered a few decent reviews. Here they are.

For me, the real jewel in the crown in issue #60 is Langwell Sorrow by Stephen Hargadon. Quite simply, this is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It centres around a mans encounter with a patron at a pub that leads him on the trail of a local football team that few have heard of. The team is/was called Langwell Sorrow. Why is there no history online of Langwell Sorrow? Where is the ground they played at? Why have only a few heard of them? Why are they spoken about in hushed voices? These are all questions that need answering as our narrator seeks to piece together the truth of their existence, and perhaps his own. This is a beautifully melancholic story. I simply adored it. Many of the places mentioned are close to where I grew up and I believe this is one of the reasons I became so drawn into this story. Hargadon perfectly captures the feel of being a football supporter with his wonderful writing along with honing in on the camaraderie that exists between followers of the sport. The narrator is full of hope and sorrow at the same time, a wonderfully realistic character. The ending to the story is simply perfect. I enjoyed it so much I read the story again, twice! it is just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, nothing else to say. The Grim Reader

The best tale this issue is novelette “Langwell Sorrow” by Stephen Hargadon about a depressed single office worker who becomes obsessed with discovering an otherworldly amateur football (soccer) team that he learns about in a pub. It’s an engaging story full of insights … Michael J, Goodreads

“ … giving way to wrinkles and creases, the eyes ever more frightened, more alert, too sensitive for the world, and then becoming dim …” I have long lived with the truly remarkable Stephen Hargadon canon of stories in Black Static, and this one I tell you is that canon’s latest apotheosis, beyond which I cannot conceive of a greater apotheosis. Except I expect there may be one. I put nothing past this author, least of all a goal. Here, we have pub talk as a sort of religion, pubs as scatologically and eschatologically worse than even one’s memory of them, one’s living in them … and better, too. Football, too, as soccer puppets of the darkening soul. I imagined stigmatised bodies hanging from those chanting outstretched soccer-scarves to the Sorrow. I cannot do justice to this text packed with wise saws, homilies, unique locals, the strangeness of suburbs of a city that are ordinary to the people living there but an alien land to you, like life and death themselves. The good-hearted winks at sometime bad bonhomie, a rough cut mix of rarefied Quentin S Crisp and something overwhelmingly and completely off-the-bar but true … And the narrator himself is a real character and a half. Full of anxieties as well as hidden hopes. DF Lewis 

… the local color and characters make [this story] a rewarding experi­ence. The nameless narrator finds old Gary Gorse at a local pub and listens to him grouse about his football team. Despite his discon­tent, he exists for the Langwell Sorrow (“Named after a church. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows on the Lower Langwell Road”) and remains true to the green-and-maroon. The narrator is fascinated and goes off to find Langwell, the church, and the team. Paula Guran, Locus Reviews

“Langwell Sorrow” by Stephen Hargadon. The narrator meets a man in a pub who tells him about an obscure football team from an unknown town. He tracks down the village, which is not listed on any map. His journey leads to an unexpected discovery. The point of the story seems to be the narrator’s search for a way to escape his lonely existence. Victoria Silverwolf, Tangent Online

Our narrator drinks a lot in a pub and doesn’t have much more in his life. One night, a man he sees all the time started talking about all the football clubs he hated, which seemed to be all of them. What club did he support? Langwell Sorrow. Team colors were maroon and green. Our narrator is intrigued but can’t find out much more from the man, only that it was associated with a church called Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. He starts to look around and finally found where they play. Nicely chilling ending. Sam Tomaino, SFRevu

Black Static 60 can be bought from TTA Press here. (If dark fiction is your thing, it’s well worth getting yourself a subscription.) For Kindle, it is available here.

black static 60 Langwell Sorrow

Cover by Ben Baldwin

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McMara’s Rock – a few reviews

McMara’s Rock, published in Black Static #55 (Nov-Dec 2016), is my longest story to appear in print. (It is not the longest thing I’ve written, but those other beasts have yet to find a home.) I do not know, or cannot remember, how the story developed: often a story begins with no more than a certain image, a particular phrase – it’s an inkling, I suppose. But quite often the words go nowhere. I scratch my head. I drink coffee. The hours drift by. My heart is not in it. The words are flat, they do not fizz. I look at the story: it’s not you, I think, it’s me.

And when I revisit an unfinished or abandoned story, read through the notes (notes that had been jotted down with such enthusiasm, such energy) – well, quite often it’s like meeting an ex. I’m baffled as to what I ever saw in the thing: where’s the spark, the twang, the mystery? My notebooks are full of such false starts, unfulfilled beginnings. So are our memories. So are our days. From my window, as I type this, the bare winter trees, black against the white sky, look like old medical drawings, macabre and grave.

There is a real split rock, of course. I remember it from childhood holidays (rain, green fields, windy beaches, Tayto cheese and onion crisps, hens, gnats, churches, bungalows, more rain). The rock is still there, I believe, in County Sligo, although it is many years since I set eyes upon it. Perhaps you’ll visit it one day. Perhaps you’ll walk through it three times. If so, I wish you  luck.

Here are a few reviews of McMara’s Rock:

From Tangent Online. Review by Seraph:

Given that this was the story chosen to headline #55, so to speak, I expected very great things from Mr. Hargadon. He did not disappoint. We are taken to Ireland, and while the year is indeterminate, it’s not too far in the past, as cars are mentioned at several points. The titular rock, split in half in times far past, is a spectre, like that of death, shadowing the characters within the story like the Reaper himself: Always present, only occasionally seen or mentioned, and inevitably but a few steps behind.

The story follows two brothers, Jerome and Michael, on whose property the rock rests. There is a lengthy legend given to explain the presence of the rock, well executed, and while much of the story revolves around the brothers, never is the rock forgotten, and it haunts the lives of the two boys. Michael is a quiet, withdrawn boy, skirting the line between sanity and madness for much of his life. Jerome is the opposite, outgoing, constantly chasing after the ladies, lost in a different kind of madness that afflicts quite a few young men in their youth, or so I hear. However, it doesn’t take long to find just how disturbed they both are. Ever more withdrawn, Michael clobbers a young girl Jerome had brought to their cottage, purely out of what can only be described as the result of a paranoid persecution complex. Jerome doesn’t seem even to be bothered, suggesting Michael have his way with her while she is twitching half-unconscious on the floor. Were that not bad enough, when she wakes, and cries that she will go to the police, Jerome simply slips her some arsenic and buries her in the vegetable garden. Nonchalant. As if one does such labor every day. Michael is appalled, but only because he is afraid “his brother might make him do something he didn’t know how to do.”

Throughout, the references to Michael’s texts, his strange prayers, his muttering, yield an impression of an incredibly disturbed individual, and yet we see not quite as disturbed as Jerome. Not yet. There is plenty of evidence later in the story that this event has catastrophic consequence. While Jerome spends their inheritance, eventually drinking himself out of his mind and into a ditch, Michael delves deeper and deeper into madness, devouring every book, kept company only by the droning of Mrs. Dolan, an elderly woman who takes care of him as best she is able, and the many feral cats that have made his cottage their home. It’s during this time that the rock captures Jerome’s mind, and in one of his many endless schemes decides to charge admission to viewing the rock. This of course goes over as well as it could, which is not at all. He finds himself shoveling manure for a circus, scheming to make a fake replica of the rock and take it on tour with the circus, and in his drink-addled delirium manages to force himself upon the daughter of the ringmaster, and gets soundly thrashed for his reprehensible conduct. While Jerome wakes up in yet another ditch, Michael is steadily losing his tenuous grasp on reality even further, and his mind is also captured by the rock. It twists and warps the fading sanity of his waking visions, and his desires turn towards the grotesque, fantasizing sexually about his dead mother and his elderly caregiver. It’s not long after, as Jerome is cheating and bedding his way into the pocketbooks of women to make his way home, that Michael turns to far darker pursuits, slaughtering a goat and eating parts of it in a semi-ritualistic experiment, thinking to gain the virility of the goat fabled in arcane texts. Not long after, Jerome finally makes his way home, and after a drunken rage pounding on the cottage door, finds his way out to the field, to test the legend and curse of the rock. He passes out between the two halves, only to fall afoul of Michael’s panicked madness. When Mrs. Dolan brings her daughter to visit him, the daughter finds not only Jerome’s body with his brain scooped out, but any number of just as disturbing elements, such as the goat and the parental bedroom. She falls prey to his grotesqueries, and suffers the same fate as Jerome and the goat. Mrs. Dolan arrives just in time for Michael to offer her the brains of her daughter to eat, claiming it was all for her, so they could live together, forever. She flees, and when the authorities rush to the cottage, they find everything aside from Michael himself, who has vanished. The macabre story ends with another dash of legend about the rock, about how it is cursed. About how it curses anyone who sees it split in half, that it really may not be split at all, finishing on a chilling note. So, there you have it … The most chilling part of the story for me is just how perfectly Michael’s slide into madness is described. It’s also rare to find an author who just takes their time with the story, not rushing it, letting it slowly build so that the mind of the reader does the work of horror. It doesn’t rely on shock value or the supernatural to convey the fear, although there are elements of both present. It is the marching inevitability of death and insanity, building and building, that makes this a masterful stroke of the pen, much like the horror stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If you are a fan of horror/weird fiction, which I can only assume you are if you are reading a review of Black Static, this is a must read, and I heartily recommend it. It is by no means a short offering, but don’t let that discourage you in the slightest. It is well worth your time.

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DF Lewis:

…  a classic worthy of your attention …  the characterisation of the two brothers is to die for.

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SFRevu:

The titular rock is actually a rock split in two. It’s in a field owned by two brothers, Michael and Jerome, near the town of Drumsheedy. There is a legend about how the rock got there, but no one really knows. The two brothers are different. It is Michael who stays at home and would never leave. Jerome travels and gets himself into trouble. But it’s when Jerome comes home that things happen. Nice build-up … to some true horror.

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This Is Horror:

First up is ‘McMara’s Rock’, by Stephen Hargadon, easily the longest story here (verging on novella length). It is a … tale of a mysterious split rock in a field in rural Ireland, which finally settles on two brothers who come to inherit the land (and rock), and their tangentially tragic, yet wildly different lives … lyrical and poetically detailed … hints at a larger cosmic horror … there are some wonderful images to be had, and a keen sense of the tragedy of insanity.

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Black Static 53 is available from TTA Press here (or from Amazon). Well worth buying a subscription.

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Illustration for McMara’s Rock by Ben Baldwin. http://www.benbaldwin.co.uk

A rollicking good read: some reviews for Mittens

Mittens appeared in Black Static 53, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s artwork (below). Here’s a few reviews of the story:

Stephen Hargadon steps up … with the evocative and imaginative Mittens. Following the discovery of a grotesque murder, the apparent felon – sideshow manager Percy Scollop – pleads his innocence by recounting tales of his history in showbusiness… most importantly, in managing the astounding talents of master knitter Neil O’Neill.

Full of life, drama and a palpable sense of wonder, Hargadon’s Mittens blends the magic of the stage with the malignancy of self-doubt, wanderlust and, yes, bloody murder. O’Neill’s signature stage show is brought to gleaming life – a bombastic spectacle that comes close to placing the reader right before the stage – whilst the gloomy, blood-slicked horror that follows is equally affecting in Hargadon’s hands.

Throw in the twisting effects of an unreliable narrator who may be that worst of narrative leaders – the insane showman – and you have yourself a rollicking good read.

Dread Central

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“The years go quickly but they arrive slowly.” As ever, this Hargadon is crammed with stunning turns of phrase, wise saws, suppurating homilies, witty but down-to-earth conceits … the central conceit of the variety act in question is too good to spoil or unspool in a review such as this … And its staggeringly disturbing finale has to be encountered cold to be fully appreciated.

DF Lewis

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Impresario Peter Scollop is found in a room in the Foxbridge Hotel in Buxton, naked except for a pair of pink knitted mittens, with blood on them, and the dead body of a woman in the cupboard: strangled, her chest cut open and knitting needles in her major organs. Scollop denied everything even his name and that the woman was dead. We get a wonderfully imaginative story with descriptions of the incredibly bizarre acts that he presented to the public. One of the best was Neil Niall O’Neill, the remarkable knitter. He could knit at a remarkable speed. But he went into a rough patch and went out with his most unbelievable act of knitting. But was that his last creation? Imaginative, entertaining and very unsettling

SFRevu

Black Static 53 is available from TTA Press here (or from Amazon). Well worth buying a subscription.

mittens

Illustration by Richard Wagner

Reviews for ‘Listen, Listen’

Some reviews for ‘Listen, Listen’ (Black Static 51)

When his father dies, Robert Haig moves into his house. His aunt tells him she had been telepathically in communication with his father and that his last words were about a place that had been burned and in which a man who died. The ghost of old Haig reprises his last dream. A nasty, very effective, grim tale. Sam Tomaino at sfrevu.com

Hargadon is the name of an author of whose work I have become a fan over the last few years … The main theme, of how one dies and what is supposed to happen after death, depending on whether one dies peacefully or while dreaming, is certainly original … We have spontaneous combustion, regrets, guilt, collected toys, Yeats’s Byzantium, father-son relationship, life without dreams not being a life at all, workers-boss relationship, money-making, the nature of bodies when burning, telepathy, death as the most dramatic thing you ever do… DF Lewis

In ‘Listen, Listen,’ Stephen Hargadon introduces us to Robert Haig, who inherits his toy-making father’s fortune. But Robert’s old man comes back to torment him in a unique way in this wonderfully written study of ghosts and the afterlife. The Horror Fiction Review

… reminds me a little of Mark Samuels crossed with Reggie Oliver … There’s far too little witty, decadent and disturbing prose out there, and I’m delighted to have discovered another author who is so good at it. John L Probert

Black Static 51 is available from TTA Press or Amazon.

LL

Illustration by Vince Haig: barquing.com

 

Some reviews of The Toilet (published in Black Static 49)

“Down in the neon gloom of the Toilet, among the mumblers and dribblers, the dead souls with their dead dreams, Rio Snagg indicated, with a buyer’s nod, that he wanted the same again; the same again being a pint of the celebrated local brew, Knicker Sniffer, a fierce and sooty fluid cited as the malign inspiration behind many a Friday night coshing and bludgeoning.”

The Toilet Stephen Hargadon Black Static 49

Since it’s appearance in Black Static #49, a few curious passers-by and hardy souls have stepped into The Toilet. Here are their thoughts:

 

Stephen Hargadon steps up to bat next [in Black Static #49] and, quite frankly, knocks it out of the park with The Toilet. Doing what he does so well – urban horror that takes the everyday sights and sounds of the city and twists them into something much grimmer – here he takes us on a journey into a semi-hidden inner city bar that serves a very special kind of home brew.

When a murder occurs outside, police inspector Burroughs heads into the dingy joint in an effort to collect statements… only to find himself trapped in a waking nightmare. It’s a remarkable piece, and despite the short length, Hargadon manages to dredge up an atmosphere so sickly, decrepit and smeared in human excretions that you can almost smell it. It’s dark, it’s nasty, it’s slightly confounding (don’t expect to grasp its secrets easily on the first read)… and it’s bloody brilliant.

Gareth Jones ~ Dreadcentral.com

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While investigating an assault, detective Frank Burroughs becomes addicted to an unusual beer in Stephen Hargadon’s ‘The Toilet.’ The Toilet is a small bar, located a flight below street level. Burroughs’ life changes after he visits the restroom in this creepy, noir-ish mind bender.

The Horror Fiction Review

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Rio Snagg is felled by someone with a hammer outside of a pub called the Toilet. Detective Burroughs investigates but runs into trouble. I can’t go into more detail but this one was very strange

Sam Tomaino ~ sfrevu.com

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Hargadon is my cup of tea as a writer … Here the drink is stronger, Knicker Sniffer on the pump, in a basement pub that used to be a public convenience … Hargadon’s … labyrinth of The Toilet’s own lavatory has to be read to be believed. It is something else altogether. REALLY.

DF Lewis ~ The Dreamcatcher of Books

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Want to go to The Toilet?

The print edition of Black Static 49 (November-December 2015 issue) can be bought here. It contains new novelettes and short stories by Ralph Robert Moore, Thana Niveau, Simon Bestwick, Stephen Hargadon, Erinn L. Kemper, and Tim Lees. The cover art is by Martin Hanford, and interior illustrations are by Ben Baldwin, Martin Hanford, and Vincent Sammy. Features: Coffinmaker’s Blues by Stephen Volk (comment); Notes From the Borderland by Lynda E. Rucker (comment); Case Notes by Peter Tennant (book reviews and an interview with Nicole Cushing); Blood Spectrum by Tony Lee (DVD/Blu-ray reviews).

An electronic version is available from Amazon & Smashwords.

Black Static 49

Everything here is before language

Some notes on Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta Books, 2012)

“The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast.” Two detectives, Hawthorn and Child, negotiate the seedier districts of North London. During the course of their somewhat dilatory investigation they meet an editor (and possible sex-killer), a religious maniac, a crime boss, a football ref who sees ghosts and a man whose illness is “due to the perverted Catholicism” of Tony Blair.

The detectives are constantly assessing their surroundings. Everything is evidence. Their conversations are terse but playful, a doleful Morecambe and Wise. Details are glimpsed, then gone. Their own thoughts lead them into zones of doubt and confusion. The implication is that in a world of clues and signs, of  vivid details, everything is ambiguous, everything leads to something else. This is not a conventional police procedural. London is a place of emotional misunderstanding and impulsive violence.

Eight loosely connected episodes form the narrative. The opening story “1934” sees the detectives looking for a car. Did the witnesses see an “old car” or an “ochre” car? If an old car, did they mean a vintage car? The ambiguity builds into a comic riff, and the interplay between Hawthorn and Child is one of the novel’s most successful and unifying threads. There’s a closeness here, as they quip and quibble like a married couple. And as with all marriages, there cannot be closeness without distance. Even when they are together, sat in their car or in a caff, Hawthorn and Child sound as though they are speaking to each other through their police radios. But coppers do have an odd way of speaking – a tone which Ridgway captures beautifully.

Reading and writing are recurring themes, although Ridgway avoids the familiar cul-de-sacs of postmodern gimmickry. A pickpocket can only express his feelings for his girlfriend in a journal. Hawthorn writes copious notes, a practice mocked by Child: “You’ve just scribbled some random fucking words”. Information spurts from the police radio. A wall is marked with the “ghost” of graffiti “but a shape persisted, snaky”. The possibly psychotic editor reads “stories all day long … I weigh characters in my hand like I am buying fruit.” There is a cod-fantasy manuscript, which may be a coded chronicle of gang warfare. At a demonstration, Hawthorn hears mouths making “noises prior to language … Everything here is before language.”

Ordinary urban details are crucial. Hawthorn, inspecting a crime scene, studies the pavement: “A cigarette butt and a hair clip. Slightly to the left there was a tube ticket … He looked down to his feet, at the small, impossibly detailed space he occupied. His patch.” And it is the our patch too. A world of rubbery scrambled eggs and family barbecues. Like the detectives, we need to be alert. “When nothing is happening we want something to happen and when something is happening we want it to stop.” There are startling images: a body whirling through the air like “a slice of wet bread”. But the language is more restrained than the flared-trouser prose of Amis’s Lionel Asbo.

The dialogue is spare and precise, the rhythms clipped. Here’s Hawthorn and Child chatting about their work:

– … We explicate.

– We what?

– Explicate?

– I don’t think that’s the right word, Hawthorn.

– We put them together.

– Extrapolate?

– Yeah.

– We work it out.

The reader must work it out, too: and that is one of the pleasures of this book, paying attention to our patch.

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