Water shall refuse them – Lucie McKnight Hardy

This is an intriguing and suspenseful  read, a dark coming of age story that toys with the traditions of folk horror.
It centres on young teenager, Nif, and her family who have moved out of the city to a small village in Wales after the death of Nif’s four year old sister, Petra, who drowned in the bath when her Mum went to answer the phone.
The Mum is in a state of shock and withdrawal from the world, the Dad struggling to keep his family happy, and Nif is left looking after Lorry, Petra’s twin brother.
The local people are hostile and even violent towards them as outsiders, and she quickly sees strange goings on among the churchgoers.
But the core of the story is Nif’s relationship with another outsider, Mally and his often drunk Mum. She gradually reveals the strange beliefs she’s developed since Petra’s death  – the Creed – which requires her to collect skulls and bird parts, and to cancel out an ill-doing with another.
Mally and Nif become closer, striking up a physical relationship and bonding over their outsider status and sense of the macabre and stories of Mally’s ancestors who were accused of bringing the plague to the village – and surviving it because they were witches.
Mally’s Mum, Janet, meanwhile is coming on to Nif’s Dad and treating her Mum with herbs and potions reminiscent of witchcraft.
Throughout, Nif is trying to remember something suppressed within her, something that will allow her to recollect why Petra drowned – why her Mum let her drown – and as the story rolls on her awareness, like her relationship with Mally, gradually gets darker until there’s a final revelation.
In the end this is an intriguing mix. There are strong hints at witchcraft, mysterious coincidences and the supernatural, and the themes of folk horror – isolation, rural and a hostile community – are constant. But actually the supernatural remains beyond reach and it’s the violence of real life and family and young adulthood that is the real horror here.

Things we lost in the fire – Mariana Enriquez

What a chilling collection of stories this is, infused with powerful women and misogyny and insanity and fear and the weird.
Many of the stories feature women who are driven to despair or anger or drugs or madness because of their crappy husbands or the wider patriarchy they live in – like the women in the story that gives the collection its title, where a trend emerges in which women reclaim horrific attacks by men by setting themselves alight, disfiguring themselves with fire, signifying power and honour and sexism in one act.
A fair number of the stories feature a merging of madness and the supernatural, like the social worker in The Neighbour’s Courtyard who sees what might or might not be an imprisoned child next door – it might be her past experiences haunting her, as her patronising and unsympathetic husband thinks, or there might be more to it. It’s a powerful theme – that the unknown and unknowable might be outside the world or it might be inside ourselves, and that itself is unknowable.
There’s a real sense, too, that horror comes from wider social and political circumstances. The protagonists are almost all trapped in poverty, or brush up against it everyday, and it’s this that often leads people to their desperate situations – kids uncared for, teenagers on drugs, women in terrible marriages – who are then open to the real or imaginary allure of the supernatural.
The stand-out stories in this collection for me are: 

The dirty kid – a middle class woman lives in a rough neighbourhood, and learns that a homeless child she sees everyday is found murdered, sacrificed maybe.

The Inn – two girls go out to a locked up resort at night and experience an attack no one believes or can see evidence of.
The intoxicated years – three young girls spend their summers getting out of it, anaesthetising themselves to what’s going on around them, even the death of one of their boyfriends.
Adele’s house – three kids break into an old locked-up house, and one of them mysteriously disappears while in there, never to return.
Spiderweb – a woman takes a trip with her cousin and her mistake-of-a-husband, from which the husband inexplicably does not return.
End of Term – a girl watches as a less popular girl at school begins to mutate herself saying she’s being controlled by some unseen man at school.
The neighbour’s courtyard – a former social worker moves into a new apartment and sees what appears to be a grimy, enslaved child next door
Things we lost in the fire – after some incidents in which women are set on fire by men, women reclaim it and a new trend of self-burning emerges. 

Applied Ballardianism – Simon Sellars

What an incredible read this is – like a drug-addled romp through critical theory, cultural theory, memoir, fiction all haunted by the continual presence of JG Ballard’s indictment of our hypercapitalist era as an already-present dystopia.
It seems to be the memoir of the actual book’s author, Sellars, detailing his descent from a young PhD student studying Ballard, to someone clinging onto reality as he takes Ballard’s call to action more and more seriously, trying to go beyond the madness of motorways and malls to push and push until he can feel something.
He gets a gig as a travel writer, travelling around distant islands before moving back to Australia and hooking up with various fellow travellers to explore alternate worlds, edgelands, motorway networks, surveillance and all the hallmarks of Ballard’s take on the modern city.
Like the characters in Ballard’s Crash or Cocaine Nights or High Rise, he seems to have realised that everything is possible today, and so novelty and originality require people to embrace violence. On the other hand he is also on the edge of becoming – or wanting to become – like the main figure in Concrete Island, someone who becomes trapped in a space in a motorway network and retreats entirely from the modern world.
The book is part of a series from the publisher called ‘adventures in theory-fiction’. And as you read on the author / protagonist gets more and more embroiled in ludicrous and often horrific scenarios to the point that you are wondering if this is true or not, whether this is a memoir or a piece of fiction. But actually that’s the Ballardian point – what’s real and what’s not breaks down in this world of CCTV and clones and machines. 
It’s like Marshland by Gareth E Rees, where the stories meld biography and fantasy and you don’t know which is which. Ballard would delight in that. Sellars’s world is messy, funny, violent, haunted by ghosts from different dimensions, and most of all packed with Ballardian insights into our world now, where nothing is real yet everything is real.

Why are dystopian films so popular?

From The Road to Hunger Games to the Batman franchise, dystopian films are often the biggest movie blockbusters. I guess I’ve always thought their popularity lies in what they tell us about our world.
I’ve just watched Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Talking about a similar theme, he explains why this is the case. Zizek draws on the critical theorist Walter Benjamin who says that we don’t perceive what is going on in the world, our place in history, until we see bits of our world that are crumbling or falling into ruin.
That’s precisely what dystopian films do – they show the ruins of our world, overtaken by environmental catastrophe or hyper-capitalism or authoritarianism. There remain the fragments, remnants of our world, which allow us to see what we’re doing and where we’re headed – an insight that really helps explain the popularity of dystopian movies and fiction.

Under the Dome – Stephen King

This epic boxset-like novel features a huge cast of characters and dissects, like little else, the intricacies of small town politics – and the dangers we face as the world’s resources become more limited.

It begins when a mysterious see-through dome descends on the small town of Chester’s Mill, killing birds, animals and humans as it does so, and trapping the town’s population. The US government begins looking into the causes and possible solutions, but it’s clear very quickly that the dome dwellers are on their own.
We meet an array of Chester’s Mill residents. Rennie, a small time politician who sees this as his chance to hold power, finally. He engineers situations – like a food riot at the supermarket – to justify more police and greater police violence, eventually recruiting some of the most horrible twenty-somethings to police the town. It turns out he’s a big time criminal who is brewing crystal meth, and is in fact stealing the dwindling town supplies of propane to keep the meth factory going.
We meet his unstable and ill son, Rennie Jr, who is in the midst of a horrific killing spree, which would have happened regardless of the dome, but whose mental and physical ill health is exacerbated by the the dome.
We meet Barbie, an army veteran cooking in the town diner, who is in fact leaving town when the dome comes down following a run-in with Rennie Jr and his pals. Blocked by the dome, an army official from the outside – Colonel Cox – asks him to lead the town, a suggestion that Rennie does everything in his power to stop.
And we meet Julia, the local paper’s editor who is intent on speaking truth to power, not least to Rennie and his gang of thugs, even as her paper and her life are constantly threatened by Rennie.
From here ensues hundreds of pages about the politics, intrigue and terror of a small town population trapped in a confined space with limited resources and growing despair about being freed, as a small few try to turn the situation to their advantage.
In short bursts of 3 or 4 pages, King takes us through the lives and emotions of probably nearly a hundred people – and it’s truly gripping. You start to connect to loads of them. Andy Sanders who turns from a naive politician to a gun-toting meth addict after his family dies. Sam Bushy who is horrifically raped by the new police recruits and kills plenty of them in return. Rusty, a medical assistant who becomes the town’s surgeon after the only qualified surgeon dies.
And as the story goes on, gradually there are less and less of them – very few in fact. So few that the apparent hero at the start – Barbie – appears far from that by the end, not because he’s turned away from heroic but because events conspire against him and the other good guys almost entirely.
I can’t help feeling that the final 100 or so pages, where King tries to bring a supernatural explanation and finale to the dome, are a bit of a let down. It’s the townspeople, their relationships, the insight into how terrified and cornered people behave, that are so mesmerising. You can’t help making the jump from this story to the impact of climate change, and thinking it does not bode well for us.