"I am purely an inspiration to lost souls. Only the privileged can bear my countenance." - Meknok
Simon Ryan is a writer of horror, albeit of the short form, who has been consigned by his Agent to writing biographies of other people. Weighed down by events from his pass Simon is gradually descending into his own personal hell of non-creativity and insipid writing. Which is just as well really because the demonic muse Meknok needs a new scribe to develop fresh tales of gruesome horror for the satanic master of Hell. There are some advantages to the new position of course, if we disregard the whole losing of one's soul matter, and Simon wavers in the face of righting a past wrong.
Thankfully Simon receives guidance from Henry Schiller, who has already lost his soul to Meknok, who informs our Writer in underworld residence that what Simon writes will construct the world he lives in. However naturally there is one downside, Simon cannot re-invent what he has previously written, some things are set in stone. As Simon is about to discover deals with the devil never ever go according to plan, and some deals really are binding. Careful with that monkey paw Eugene!
The Noctuary is Chapman's latest novella for Damnation Press following the well-received Torment. Once again the Writer attacks the hell bound heart with vigour, but in so doing doesn't deliver quite the read you might have been expecting going in. So that's a good thing right? You get what you don't expect and still get to hang out with a well written yarn that has some knife edged gore interlaced in the narrative. Without giving away spoilers, Simon Ryan will cross into hell and discover it really is a place of suffering and abominations of the flesh. Thankfully it's a short stay, or is it?
On the surface The Noctuary can be read as a simple fable of dabbling with forces beyond our comprehension. Of making deals with tricksters of infinite guile and deceit, that promise greatness but at a price that is beyond what is prepared to be paid. However dig a little deeper and you unearth a tale about an Author forged through family tragedy, who views his father, (a thoroughly despicable character), as his own personal dark muse. In short we are dealing with a tale that can be read on multiple levels, which asks the Reader to consider if events aren't all in Simon Ryan's fractured mind. Your choice which interpretation you want to take, Greg Chapman is a good enough writer of the macabre to have it working on all sorts of levels.
If I had to draw a parallel between The Noctuary and anything else I would be pointing unerringly at Constantine. You know the movie starring Keanu Reeves based on a comic book. There's that whole seeing things that others can't, a sort of waking Kafkaesque nightmare, and the whole hell wants him but heaven isn't in negotiations just yet for the contract. Of course The Noctuary is much better written and has less of the meandering story elements that Constantine laboured under, though they both offer panoramic views of the Christian Hell. Now there's a visage I could quite happily not receive postcards from.
While playing with the wonderful concept of Hell having its own dark muses, Chapman takes time out of his busy schedule to thrown onto the table one of the great horror themes from down the ages. Be careful what you wish for, deals are never what they seem in this genre. Like many horror protagonists Simon Ryan believes he can somehow come out ahead of the game, which is kind of like betting the house at blackjack, there's those rumours and then plenty of heartache as a reality. Ryan learns somethings cannot be changed, no matter how much you might wish them to. There's more levels of suffering that are mana to the demonic than one might expect.
Greg Chapman tears into his novella with enough description to have the reader forming their own mental pictures, and more importantly with an ear to the pacing and atmosphere being conjured up to get the right mood happening. The Noctuary reads like a waking nightmare where the surreal is likely to slither out of even a neighbourhood café scene. For sure there are some gross scenes, but once again these can be read on multiple levels, so what is reality is open to conjecture. I'm sure there's plenty of Writers working today who would love to figuratively eat their Agents, especially in the face of a particularly worrying deadline. Chapman constructs his dance to a carefully orchestrated beat, but doesn't restrict himself to known steps.
Almost finished here but wanted to make mention of the actual muse thing before wrapping. The ancient Greeks were heavily into the concept, from memory nine muses who inspired various forms of art or science, with a belief that individual artistic inspiration could be ascribed to the influence of a personal muse. Greg Chapman throws on the whole muse concept, gives it a twist into darker waters, and points the finger at where all those dark genre concepts might be coming from. Don't blame the Writer the devil, in the form of one of the muses, made him/her do it. There's a reason Hell's dark amphitheatre is the background for one scene, all the world's a stage perhaps, but that's about as close as I'm going to get to critical analysis.
Greg Chapman's The Noctuary romped along like a particularly vivid nightmare keeping me happily engaged from first word to last. I'm not entirely sure you could claim the Writers is hitting almost cinematic clarity in Stephen King fashion, though for sure I was getting a Constantine vibe, but then again should prose be that shallow? For sure Chapman's prose is anything but shallow, there's some dark depths to explore here, but he also has this veneer of the everyday thing happening. I particularly liked the fact that the novella could be read on multiple levels, with the Reader not forced to confront themes and subtext. Let's face facts here kids, if the subtext is hitting you between the eyes, then you are dealing with a Writer that doesn't have the fundamental requirement, the ability to tell a story. Chapman's novella is entertaining, will pose some questions for the reader, but ultimately achieves what it sets out to do. Full recommendation, can't wait to see what Chapman devises next. Anyone else think Chapman should attack the traditional haunted house yarn?
The Noctuary is available from Damnation Press, a copy could be yours for the wonderfully low price of $4.50! That would be the ebook edition y'all. If after a hard copy for your bookshelf, or maybe you want to scare your maiden aunt to death in order to claim the inheritance, then Amazon is your friend. Greg Chapman takes time out of his busy writing schedule to maintain a blog right about here. Now if you'll excuse me I've got to go constructed a letter as to why Chapman should write an exorcism yarn set in an isolated run down barn, the dude would own that concept. Hang about he already did!
[Editor's Note: "Noctuary" - a journal of what passes in the night, as opposed to a diary. For those who think we don't check].