As promised a while ago, I've perused the latest Sarob Press release - a collection of two novellas and four short stories by the veteran writing partnership of Len Maynard and Mick Sims. While there's nothing new about such teamwork, especially in the field of ghostly/horror fiction, it is quite unusual nowadays.
The first novella, 'Double Act', explores what can be one of the murkiest facets of showbiz - the comedy partnership. In the standard double act there's a clown and a straight man, though the conventions are sometimes flipped around - Morecambe and Wise famously took Abbott and Costello's approach and reversed it,with the tall, apparently 'serious' one becoming the clown. In 'Double Act' the straight man - who is also the duo's writer - dies, leaving the clown (a penurious compulsive gambler) with an uncertain future. Things become even more tricky when it emerges that someone, or Some Thing, is killing people linked to the now-defunct duo of Coker and Hass. Is it the ghost of Charlie Hass, or something altogether stranger?
As a novella 'Double Act' works rather well, especially in evoking the spirit of old-style music hall entertainers. Internal evidence (Eric Sykes and Galton and Simpson are up-and-coming writers) places the story in the mid-Fifties. If I have one reservation it's that some of the characters are rather wooden, and I did wonder why there was no reference to the threat from television, which would soon put paid to a lot of live entertainment. But these are minor quibbles. The plot is well-constructed and the finale, following a series of revelations about Charlie Hass' private life, is effective.
The first of the short stories, 'Serenity', is altogether different in feel. A rather ineffectual man, Jona Lewis, takes early retirement and finds himself at a bit of a loose end. Then he bumps into an old friend who invites him for a stay in the country. This a very traditional opening, of course, but it leads to a far from conventional denouement. This reader was certainly foxed but also satisfied by a conclusion that shuns shocks in favour of a strange, but oddly moving, revelation.
Different again is 'Jealousy', in which the authors return to showbusiness, but this time in a modern tale of black magic. Reading it, I was reminded of the Brian Clemens' series Thriller, which screened in the early Seventies. Like the best of those dramas, 'Jealousy' proceeds from the mundane to the truly weird via a series of carefully calculated incidents. The finale, which takes place in St Paul's Cathedral, has a distinctly cinematic feel.
'Assignment' is part of a series of stories about Department 18, a kind of government dirty tricks outfit dedicated to the occult and/or paranormal. Perhaps because I've never read any of the early Department 18 tales I found this one tougher going than the others. But it is quite effective, not least in its description of a demonic entity that recalls the visitants encountered by some of M.R. James' protagonists.
The second novella, 'Flame', is a rather exotic 'wide screen' story of a tribe of long-lived Japanese witch-beings who have the enviable ability to steal talent from ordinary mortals. The Tashkai, as they're called (and I haven't Googled to find out if they are a 'real legend' or not) certainly make a change from vampires. Again, we're in English country house horror territory, which gives 'Flame' a slightly old-fashioned feel. That's not by any means a bad thing, though, and the Tashkai's method of extracting talent from and then silencing their victims is certainly memorable.
Overall, this is another classy production from Sarob, and comes (of course) with top-notch cover and internal artwork by Paul Lowe.